On Monday, we talked about how taking a moment to think about your Ability Scores when creating a D&D character can really help you tie together their in-game statistics and their personality or history. Today, we’re going to demonstrate the two approaches discussed in that article, first generating a character from the rolled stats, then using the stats to make an existing character’s story connect to their capabilities.
Paint By Numbers
Here we have a set of stats I just rolled for a character DnD Beyond’s name generator has dubbed Cheng. Cheng is a Human, and with these stats, is probably best equipped to be either a Warlock or a Sorcerer. We’ll say Warlock for the purposes of this.
Mechanically, he’s set up fairly well. High Charisma gives him a decent Spell Attack and Saving Throw DC, and good Constitution means he can maintain Concentration to make the best of his limited Spell Slots over time. Low Strength shouldn’t impede him, as he likely won’t be engaging anyone in melee combat any time soon. His slightly-higher-than-average Dexterity, Intelligence and Wisdom mean his Skill modifiers, aside from Athletics, are all positive.
But currently, Cheng exists only as those 6 numbers, and that just won’t do. So, taking those as a basis, let’s flesh him out a little. Using these stats, we can build a story around him that’s both believable and compelling, and will make sure that how he’s roleplayed at the table matches up with what’s on the sheet.
A good place to start here is with the highest and lowest stats. In the case of Cheng The Warlock, that’s Strength for the former, and Constitution and Charisma tied for the latter. Already, then, this contrast gives us the building blocks of a narrative. Low Strength, high Constitution, suggests that he’s more likely to be hit than hit back. Moreover, the high Charisma is tied directly to the Persuasion and Deception skills, at which he is thus naturally adept.
So perhaps, then, Cheng’s early career is one of a con-man. Lacking the strength to be a soldier or labourer, he instead takes the path of a swindler who lies and charms his way from mark to mark, making just enough coin to keep himself afloat before skipping town. But over the years, there have been times where a silver tongue and quick wit simply aren’t enough, and either at the hands of city guardsmen or irate victims of his schemes, he’s grown used to taking a beating.
But what takes Cheng from a con-man to a Warlock in the servant of a powerful deity? Well, another of his higher stats is Intelligence, suggesting a capacity for learning and perhaps an appetite for knowledge. Perhaps, as he travels the land avoiding the law and plying his deceptive trade, he enjoys what little spare time he has perusing libraries and collections of lore, fascinated by the worlds beyond his own squalid existence. While he rests in cheap inns and drinks his sorrows away with cheaper booze, he engrosses himself in tales of adventure and is enthralled by tales of the realms beyond this one.
Maybe, he’s read enough to be familiar with the concept of the Nine Hells and the beings that dwell there. Thus, in a moment of desperation as his luck runs out, he recalls an occult incantation that calls a powerful Devil to his aid. However, his intelligence isn’t that high, so he fails to remember that such creatures are notoriously wicked and exploitative; his life may be saved, but he now owes the remainder of it to the entity that rescues him, and thus his Warlock pact is born…
‘I am not a number, I am a free man!’
Now let’s take the opposite approach. We’ve come to the campaign with a character archetype in mind before we ever roll a dice, a character we really want to play exactly as they’ve existed in our head for the past few weeks.
Let’s say the DM has told me this campaign is going to be all about gritty urban intrigue rather than high fantasy questing, so I want to play a detective character, someone who’s all about being the smartest person in the room and solving problems without a fight if they can. This character is going to be smart, cocky, not the most physically capable individual. And if this sounds like a Benedict Cumberbatch character… yeah, fine, you got me there…
I roll stats, and get the following: 14, 15, 8, 10, 4, 11
For the intelligence bonus, I’m going to pick one of the Gnome races. This character concept is not tied to any particular race, so there’s no problem here picking a race that’s going to give me a useful bonus to help me realise it. Picking a class is maybe trickier, as I don’t want to play a caster and Wizard is the only Intelligence-based class. However, I settle on Rogue as some of their archetypes can make good use of the stat.
With race and class picked, I spread my stats thus:
Obviously, the best stats go into Intelligence and Wisdom, to secure solid bonuses to skills like Investigation, History, Perception and Insight, which are essential to the detective-style character I want to realise. However, while a 17 is a good stat to have at level 1, it’s not approaching the pinnacle of what this particular race is hypothetically capable of; a Gnome that was truly the smartest of the smart could hit Intelligence 20 at first level. Likewise, Wisdom 14 is good, but it’s entirely possible that if you’re playing alongside a Druid or Cleric, you’re not going to be the wisest in your party.
So here, the process starts of compromising between the vision we have for this character, and what the numbers will allow us to do. We’ve already established that this diminutive detective is far from charming, so maybe that extends to a hint of arrogance. With Intelligence and Wisdom significantly lower than they potentially could be, he’s obviously not as smart as he thinks he is. Fortunately, we have the horrifically low 4 sitting around, so put that in Charisma and we can give this boastful arrogance a basis in the stats.
This leaves us with stats hovering around average to fill out the physical attributes. For this sort of character, they maybe don’t matter so much, but they can still fit elements of his character despite not radically affecting how he functions mechanically. With Strength, Dexterity and Constitution all between 10-12, we can picture him as a physically unassuming individual, which feeds into his reliance on mental abilities. He’s neither scrawny nor brawny enough to be noteworthy, which helps him keep a low profile amongst the urban masses.
Now, at this point those of you experience with D&D are probably cottoning on to the biggest flaw here: we have a Rogue with no Dexterity Modifier… It’s a fair cop (pun absolutely intended), but this piece is about how you can work with what you have to fit stats to your idea of the character, rather than making the most of their mechanical potential. I’d also posit that in a campaign where you’re going to play a detective archetype, slaying monsters might be some way down the list in terms of importance.
Had we rolled another high stat, we could of course give him a high Dexterity and say he’d had some practice in martial arts, acrobatics or stealth, but given the lack of available high rolls, we’ve had to prioritise the mental stats to best realise this particular version of the archetype we’ve imagined.
Of course, these are just a couple of the many, many possible pasts that one could build from or with the two sets of stats above, but they showcase the approaches discussed in Monday’s piece, while also touching on the ways a compromise can be found between stats and concepts, ensuring you have a good time at the table and get to play a character that appeals to you.
This Crafting A Character article has run quite long enough now, so I’ll leave it there, but should you feel inspired, try this yourself! Roll a set of random stats, maybe pick a race and class for extra flavour, and just spend a few minutes working out how those combine to tell a story. If you are so inclined, leave your creations in the comments below, and if you’re up for a real challenge, maybe even get your group together for a one-shot game and create characters like this at the table before taking them on an adventure!